2

Banding together to buy back Congress

The $3 million – and possibly more – that Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison has given to a super PAC backing Republican Marco Rubio’s presidential bid is a perfect example of why ordinary Americans need a way to balance out megadonors’ money, Rep. John Sarbanes said Friday.

John Sarbanes“It’s about who can get their phone calls answered, who can get the attention of candidates in the first place,” Sarbanes, D-Md., said during an interview in San Francisco. “Obviously the super PAC benefactors are in a position to do that with the presidential candidates.”

But now super PACs also are playing increasingly large roles in Senate and House races too, dragging America toward the day when every federal candidate will need to have “have a sugar daddy in the wings,” he said.

Unless regular voters band together to become sugar daddies themselves.

Sarbanes is the author of H.R. 20, the “Government By the People Act,” which would give every citizen taxpayer a $25 “My Voice Tax Credit” for House campaign contributions, and then augment those small contributions – and give candidates a bigger incentive to seek them – with a six-to-one match from a taxpayer-funded “Freedom From Influence Fund.” The bill also would let candidates to earn additional public matching funds within 60 days of the election so that citizen-funded candidates can combat Super PACs and outside groups.

“Even before Citizens United, we had a problem with direct campaign contributions to candidates having a lot of influence,” Sarbanes said, so pursuing a constitutional amendment to overturn that 2010 Supreme Court decision – a longshot at best – wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, he said, it’s time to “build a different system that gives everyday people power.”

Some might complain that the answer to the corrosive influence of money in politics shouldn’t be putting more even money into politics. But Sarbanes said “the problem is not so much the amount of money – the problem is the source of the money,” coming from a tiny percentage of the mega-rich and amplifying only their interests.

Someone is going to own the levers of government – “either it’s going to be the big money crowd… or it’s going to be the public,” he said. “And if the public wants to own the government, there’s going to be a cost associated that, but it’s a pretty modest investment.”

This could help reverse the long downward trend in voter turnout, too, he said. “A lot of rational voters, either consciously or subconsciously, are saying to themselves, ‘Why bother voting if the guy I elect is going to work for someone else’” with deeper pockets, Sarbanes said. Fighting for access to the ballot box is important, but it’s useless if that ballot box is then hijacked on its way to Washington by moneyed special interests. “There’s a right to vote, and then there’s a right to have your vote mean something.”

Disclosure requirements, non-coordination rules and other campaign finance regulations “are about putting a referee on the field, to blow the whistle when someone is going out of bounds. It doesn’t solve the problems of most Americans still sitting up there in the bleachers,” he said. “The disaffected, disillusioned, frankly desperately cynical voters who’ve packed their things and fled the town square – this is a way to bring them back.”

Sarbanes’ bill has 155 co-sponsors, including the Bay Area’s entire House delegation but one Republican, Walter Jones, R-N.C. Sarbanes acknowledges he’s playing a long game and doesn’t expect the bill to pass any time soon, but he said he’s hitting themes that should appeal to voters across the political spectrum. After all, he said, voters on the far left and Tea Partiers alike talk about wanting to take their country back from the fat-cat special interests.

“I do see increasing use of the same lexicon, the same narrative I’m talking about here… and if they’re speaking this language, then we’re winning,” he said.

3

Citizens United anniversary brings protests

Activists are taking to the streets Wednesday in the Bay Area and across the nation to mark the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has let an unprecedented flood of money wash across the face of American politics.

money in politicsIn Berkeley, the California Public Interest Research Group, local officials, students and residents gathered Wednesday morning on Cal’s Sproul Plaza. “Five years ago today, the Supreme Court went way off track, and gave mega-donors and corporate interests free rein to drown out the voices of the majority,” said Zach Weinstein of CALPIRG. “But we’re here today because the decision also sparked a movement of Americans working to take back our democracy, city-by-city and state-by-state.”

“We must stop the influx of big money in our democracy by passing an amendment to our constitution to stop corporations from being defined as people and money as speech; enacting disclosure laws, campaign finance contribution limits and publicly funded campaigns,” said Helen Grieco of Common Cause.

In San Francisco, activists are organizing a “Mourning in America” march starting at 3:30 p.m. from Market and Montgomery streets to the federal building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. for a 4:30 p.m. rally. The march, to “call for a reversal of corrupt campaign finance system that favors wealthy special interests over the public interest,” will be led by hip-hop artist Khafre Jay, effigies of the five Supreme Court Justices who were in the majority on Citizens United, a live band, and a coffin containing Uncle Sam; marchers are encouraged to wear black, and black armbands will be handed out.

Those scheduled to speak at the rally include former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco; former Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin; good-government expert and former Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman; and others. Endorsers and organizers include the Money Out! People In! Coalition, 99Rise, CA Nurses Association, Common Cause, Courage Campaign, California Clean Money Campaign, Free Speech for People, Money Out Voters In (MOVI), MoveOn Councils, Move to Amend, Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, Public Citizen, Represent.us, San Francisco Labor Council AFL-CIO, Solar Justice, and the Sunflower Alliance.

99RiseIn Washington, D.C., seven 99Riseactivists disrupted Wednesday morning’s U.S. Supreme Court session. Each stood up and demanded that the court overturn Citizens United, before raising his or her index finger in the air – a gesture meant to represent the “one person, one vote” principle that they say the ruling undermined.

“We have seen the consequences of the free flow of private money rushing into our public political system,” activist Curt Ries said. “Nearly $4 billion was spent in the 2014 midterm elections, and almost all of it came from a handful of wealthy individuals and organizations. The kind of influence that money buys fundamentally corrupts our electoral process by giving undue representation to wealthy donors and corporations. That’s not a democracy, it’s a plutocracy.”

11

CA17: Khanna & Honda spar over campaign money

South Bay congressional candidate Ro Khanna and Rep. Mike Honda are challenging each other to put their money where their mouths are – or rather, to give up some of that money.

Khanna, a Democrat from Fremont, sent a letter Thursday to Honda, D-San Jose, asking the congressman to shun any independent expenditure committee or super PAC support in the 17th Congressional District race.

“I was encouraged to see your Tweet yesterday about your co-sponsorship of House Joint Resolution 25, to amend the Constitution and overturn Citizens United. We are in complete agreement on this important issue. Unlimited spending by outside special interest groups is polluting our politics,” Khanna wrote.

“Let’s stand together with the other candidates in this race and take the same People’s Pledge Senator Elizabeth Warren and her opponent did to keep independent expenditures out of their race in 2012,” he wrote. “Senator Warren and Scott Brown agreed to pay a penalty of 50 percent the cost of any TV, radio, or Internet advertising by an outside group – whether that ad supported the candidates themselves or aimed to attack their opponent. The money would be donated to a charity chosen by the other candidate. I believe we should embrace this landmark agreement and expand it to include direct mail expenditures as well. By saying no to all forms of advertising from outside groups, we are taking real stand against Citizens United.”

It worked well in that Massachusetts Senate race, Khanna noted.

“I hope you will take this pledge with me – and join me in asking any other candidates who may enter this race to do the same,” he wrote. “As the heart of Silicon Valley, the 17th District is our nation’s capital of innovation. We have a real opportunity to lead on this issue, too.”

Khanna already has pledged not to accept any direct contributions from PACs or federally registered lobbyists – though it’s not as if a lot of that money would be raining down upon him anyway as he challenges a seven-term incumbent. The same goes for independent expenditures and super PACs: While some might come Khanna’s way, Honda probably would benefit more, and so would lose more by taking this pledge.

Khanna’s campaign started this year with $1.97 million cash on hand while Honda had $622,000 banked, so this might not be an easy principle for Honda to stand on.

Then again, Honda has been outspoken in his opposition to Citizens United and the rampant independent spending it has bred:

Honda tweet

Doug Greven, Honda’s campaign manager, responded to Khanna campaign manager Leah Cowan on Thursday night. Apparently Honda won’t commit to a pledge against IE and super PAC funding, but Greven made a counter-offer:

In the true spirit of keeping undue influence out of this election, we propose limiting contributions to all candidates in this race to an amount that puts millionaires on a level playing field with ordinary folks: $570. This is the same limit as local elections in the city of Fremont, in our district.

We propose that all campaigns refund contributions to any donors who have already given more than this limit of $570. Your campaign can start by refunding the $11,000 in contributions from the five donors who have already requested a refund because Ro misled them. He had asked for their max-out contributions to run for an open seat, then used their money to run in a different district — against Mike.

Then your campaign can continue by refunding contributions to Marc Leder (gave $5,200 to Ro) who hosted Mitt Romney for the fundraiser where he made his 47% remark, and Peter Thiel (gave $2,500 to Ro) who has given millions to the Club for Growth in order to elect far-right conservatives like Ted Cruz.

We look forward to your response.

Asked whether this means Honda won’t consider the anti-IE pledge, Honda campaign spokesman Vivek Kembaiyan replied, “Any serious proposal to change campaign financing in this race would need to include reducing the amount that can be given directly to any campaign.”

Seeing as how the first part of this proposal would entail Khanna’s campaign jettisoning the vast majority of the tremendous bankroll it has raised, I feel confident in guessing the answer will be: “Fat chance.”

UPDATE @ 8:41 A.M. FRIDAY: Cowan replied to Greven late last night.

Hi Doug,

I appreciate your note, but I think it’s off topic.

Yesterday Congressman Honda tweeted that he supports amending the US Constitution to reverse Citizens United. Ro agrees.

Citizens United ruled that corporations are people and that individuals have the right to spend unlimited money to influence elections. I think you are aware that reversing Citizens United has nothing to do with the issues you raised in your note.

Does Congressman Honda support reversing Citizens United or doesn’t he?

Does he think the reversal of Citizens United should apply to all candidates, or would he write exceptions into the United States Constitution?

We have a real opportunity in this race to stand up against special interests and do something that the voters are demanding: change business as usual in Washington. I hope that Congressman Honda will reconsider his position and join Ro in this pledge.

Yours Truly,
Leah

18

Good-government activist to run for sec’y of state

A veteran good-government activist declared his candidacy for California secretary of state today in Sacramento.

Derek Cressman, a Democrat, said he’s seeking the office “to make elections count for Californians. “We need real leadership to limit the role corporations and big-moneyed special interests play in our elections.”

Derek CressmanCressman, 45, of Sacramento, has worked for the past 18 years with nonpartisan groups including Common Cause and the Public Interest Research Group. He said his priorities as secretary of state – a position which, among other things, is the state’s top elections officer – would include challenging the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that has opened the floodgates to unprecedented political spending.

He said he also would seek to modernize California’s voter registration and small business registration systems to reduce bureaucratic barriers to voting and enterprise, and upgrade the state’s voter guide to offer Californians better information on candidates and ballot measures.

“Derek’s not just another career politician looking to move up one rung on the ladder,” Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way, said in Cressman’s news release. “He is not indebted to special interests and will fight tirelessly for fair and transparent elections.”

Cressman’s campaign will be run by San Francisco-based 50+1 Strategies, led by Nicole Derse and Addisu Demissie; consultant Parke Skelton of Los Angeles will serve as a senior advisor to what Derse says will be “a truly grassroots campaign across California, engaging voters in their communities and online about their vision for our democracy and our state.”

Secretary of State Debra Bowen is term-limited out of office at the end of 2014. Next year will be the first time that this and other statewide offices are subject to the new “top-two” primary system, in which candidates of all parties compete directly for primary votes and then only the top two vote-getters advance to November’s general election, regardless of their party affiliation.

Other Democrats who’ve filed statements of intention to seek the office next year include former state Sen. Elaine Alquist of Santa Clara; former Assemblyman Charles Calderon of Montebello; former Assemblyman Mike Davis of Los Angeles; voting transparency and accountability activist Alan Jay Dechert of Granite Bay; 2012 Assembly candidate Mervin Evans of Los Angeles; state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton; state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys; and state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.

Also in the race are Republican Pete Peterson, executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, and Green Party candidate David Curtis, an architect and activist from San Rafael.

8

Californians might weigh in on Citizens United

An East Bay Assemblyman wants Californians to vote on whether the state’s congressional delegation should push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow new limits on political contributions and spending.

Bob WieckowskiAB 644 by Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, calls for a November 2014 ballot measure in which voters could instruct members of Congress to work toward an amendment reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Wieckowski last year authored a successful resolution expressing the Legislature’s support for such an amendment.

“Now it’s time to let all Californians have their voices heard,” he said in a news release Thursday. “This is an issue people feel passionately about because they know the campaign finance system is skewed against the interests of the working poor and middle class.”

Common Cause, a nonprofit group that advocates for open, honest and accountable government, is sponsoring the bill.

“Giving every Californian a chance to declare that money isn’t free speech is exactly the sort of high-profile step that is required if we are serious about reversing the Supreme Court,” said Derek Cressman, director of Common Cause’s campaign to reverse Citizens United. “Voter instruction measures such as this have spurred previous constitutional amendments.”

CREDO, a progressive mobile phone company with more than three million activist members nationwide including more than 500,000 members in California, supports the bill as well.

“California would be the biggest state yet to throw its support behind a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United,” said CREDO political director Becky Bond. “Corporate money in politics is literally destroying our democracy and CREDO will help organize millions of Californians help us take back our elections.”

Similar grassroots ballot measures were approved in November by voters in Montana and Colorado, as well as in San Francisco and Richmond. Los Angeles last month approved a voter instruction measure that will appear on the city’s May 2013 ballot.

26

Corporate personhood advances – in carpool lane

Corporate personhood takes a new leap forward Monday as a Marin County motorist challenges his traffic ticket by arguing it was OK to drive in the carpool lane because his corporation was with him.

Jonathan Frieman, a local activist and nonprofit consultant, was ticketed Oct. 2 for driving in the carpool lane during restricted hours; the officer apparently wasn’t impressed when Frieman showed him his incorporation papers. A traffic court hearing is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

The fine for such a violation is $478, but Frieman, 59, of San Rafael, says that if the court rules against him Monday, he’s prepared to appeal the case all the way to the California Supreme Court in an effort to expose the impracticality of corporate personhood.

Corporate personhood, of course, has been at the heart of the ongoing debate over campaign finance ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling unleashed a torrent of corporate contributions.

“Corporations are imaginary entities, and we’ve let them run wild,” Frieman said in a news release. “Their original intent 200 years ago at the dawn of our nation was to serve human beings. So I’m wresting back that power by making their personhood serve me.”

California Vehicle Code section 470 defines a “person” as “a natural person, firm, copartnership, association, limited liability company, or corporation.” Section 21655.5, under which Frieman was cited, states that “no person shall drive a vehicle upon lanes except in conformity with the instructions imparted by the official traffic control devices.”

Ford Greene, Frieman’s attorney and a San Anselmo councilman, said the Vehicle Code makes “person” and “corporation” equivalent, so “when a corporation is present in one’s car, it is sufficient to qualify as a two-person occupancy for commuter lane purposes. When the corporate presence in our electoral process is financially dominant, by parity it appears appropriate to recognize such presence in an automobile.”